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At 19, Alan Ramer was heading out to a Hawaiian beach one day in 1970 when the hotel concierge stopped him and asked where he was going. Ramer told her he was off to look for seashells. “Oh, honey,” she said. “You don’t want to look for seashells, you want to look for glass bubbles.” The bubbles, she told him, were Japanese glass fishing floats. Handblown and tied into nets, some broke free of their rope cradles and rode the Pacific currents until they snagged on the Hawaiian Islands or North American coast.
Ramer went searching and never really stopped, becoming an avid glass ball collector. He eventually befriended a worldwide network of collectors. In 1983, he and some of his friends began the Beachcombers Fun Fair in Ocean Shores, Washington. In March 2019, he’s the emcee of the 32nd iteration.
Collectors of many coastal commodities are here from across the country admiring the displays of treasures spit up by the waves. There are “sea beans”—hardy coin-sized seeds from South America and Africa that litter the Atlantic coast—messages in bottles, and piles of 2011 Tōhoku earthquake debris.
This year, there’s a startling new addition to the fair. Chunks of unexploded anti-aircraft ordnance from the Second World War have been washing up along the broad white-sand beaches of Ocean Shores and the surrounding area with sudden and unexplained frequency. The area was an important navy base during the war, and unused munitions were likely disposed of in the area after peace was declared. Some mysterious oceanographic or geological quirk has uncovered them now. Residents are less riled by these new “sea shells” than by their disposal: they’re collected into piles on the beach and destroyed by the US Army in large—and loud—explosions.
Back in the hall, the county sheriff conducts a question-and-answer session about munitions safety, but most beachcombers seem unperturbed. Explosive potential aside, the strange chunks of ordnance are just another symbol of the ocean’s mysteries. Every piece here, no matter how small, ragged, and storm-tossed, represents a connection to another person, another place. And that connection is what keeps pulling Ramer and others like him back to the beach.